( AP ) - Iraq's parliament voted Saturday to give jobs back to thousands of former supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baath party who were fired after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The long-delayed bill is the first of several major changes in Iraqi law sought by the Bush administration with the goal of easing ethnic and religious tensions. The 275-seat parliament is still deadlocked over how to share the country's oil profits, constitutional amendments demanded by minority Sunni Arabs, and a bill spelling out rules for local elections.
The bill, approved Saturday by a unanimous show of hands, seeks to relax restrictions on the rights of members of the now-dissolved Baath party to fill government posts.
It is also designed to reinstate thousands of Baathists dismissed from government jobs after the U.S. invasion - a decision that deepened sectarian tensions between Iraq's majority Shiites and the once-dominant Sunni Arabs, who believed the firings targeted their community.
The strict implementation of so-called de-Baathification rules also meant that many senior bureaucrats who knew how to run ministries, university departments and state companies ended up unemployed in a country where 35 years of Baath party rule and extensive government involvement in the economy had left tens of thousands of party members in key positions.
That, coupled with the disbanding of the Iraqi army, threw tens of thousands of people out of work at a critical time in Iraq's history and fueled the burgeoning Sunni insurgency.
Traveling with President Bush in Manama, Bahrain, White House press secretary Dana Perino said the legislation, coupled with a pension measure approved by the parliament, "is important especially not just for the Iraqis but it shows the American people that our troops and Americans that are there working hard to help them get this to the point, are doing the job, they are fulfilling their mission. It also shows the region that they should have some confidence in what is happening in Iraq."
The Bush administration initially promoted de-Baathification but later claimed that Iraqi authorities went beyond even what the Americans had contemplated to keep Saddam's supporters out of important jobs.
With the Sunni insurgency raging and political leaders making little progress in reconciling Iraq's Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, the Americans switched positions and urged the dismantling of de-Baathification laws.
Later, enacting and implementing legislation reinstating the fired Baath supporters became one of 18 so-called benchmark issues the U.S. sought as measures for progress in national reconciliation.
The legislation can become law only when approved by Iraq's presidential council. The council, comprised of Iraq's president and two vice presidents, is expected to ratify the measure.
The draft law approved Saturday is not a blanket approval for all former Baathists to take government jobs.
The law will allow low-ranking Baathists not involved in past crimes against Iraqis to go back to their jobs. High-ranking Baathists will be sent to compulsory retirement and those involved in crimes will stand trial, though their families will still have the right to pension.
The Baathists who were members in Saddam's security agencies must retire - except for members of Fidayeen Saddam, a feared militia formed by Saddam's eldest son, Oday. They will be entitled to nothing.
Inside parliament, when the Kurdish lawmakers raised their hands in favor of the article that the members of Saddam's security bodies should be sent to compulsory retirement, the Sunni Arab parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, told the Kurds: "Now you raise your hands in favor of sending Saddam's security men to retirement, while earlier you reinstated the Kurds who collaborated with or worked for Saddam to government jobs in Kurdistan."
Al-Mashhadani spoke of "donkeys," a term used by Kurds to describe the Kurdish people who used to collaborate with Saddam. They were pardoned by Kurdistan officials after 2003 war.
"Are your donkeys better than our donkeys?" al-Mashhadani asked, referring to Kurds who used to work for Saddam's security operations.